Byzantine Empire

Two Rome’s

The Roman Emperor Diocletian came to the throne after five decades of political, social and economic turmoil. He initiated far reaching reforms that stabilised the empire and in 285 after concluding the empire was too large for one man to govern created a co-emperor, effectively dividing the empire in two. In 306 Constantine I was declared Augustus (emperor) in York, England and went on to briefly re-unite the Roman Empire following the suppression of several rebellions. He developed the town of Byzantium into a major city and renamed it after himself, Constantinople and made it the centre of his empire, becoming the New Rome. In 330 he celebrated his new capital by minting commemorative coins. In 313 Christians went from being a persecuted minority to winning Imperial recognition and soon after become the state religion, however he was not baptised until the day he died; 22 May 337. In 395 Emperor Theodosius I died and bequeathed half of his empire to each of his sons with Milan the capital of the Western Roman Empire while Constantinople remained the capital of the more powerful East.

Rome Falls

While the Western Roman Empire was beset with multiple threats from around the 390’s the Eastern Roman Empire prospered. In 527 the energetic Justinian I came to the throne and set his sights on recovering lost Roman territory in the west. He restored Italy, north Africa, the Mediterranean islands and part of Iberia to the rule of (Eastern) Rome. At the same time the empire was challenged by the Persians who were bought off with the payment of tribute. In 610 during the reign of Heraclius Latin was replaced by Greek as the official language of the empire. The Prophet Muhammad sent Heraclius a letter inviting him to adopt Islam but his contemplation of doing so angered his court so he declined. Muslim forces began eating away at the empire from the south, often being welcomed by both Christians and Jews. By 717 Byzantium lost its African and far eastern provinces to the advancing Muslims who fought each other off and on for the next 400 years. The period 867-1057 is known as the Macedonian Renaissance, when the empire recovered much of its influence in the Adriatic and Balkans and culturally flourished. In 1054 ecclesiastical differences between the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople resulted in a permanent Schism in Christianity between the Catholic and Orthodox faiths.

Crusades and fall

Beginning in 1095 a series of nine religious Crusades were launched with the blessing of the Pope primarily to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Lands from Islamic control. However Crusaders also attacked Byzantine forces whose empire was regarded as an enemy of the true Church. The last Crusade finished in 1291, but the Fourth Crusade 1202-04 had a devastating impact on Byzantium and created permanent enmity between the two branches of Christendom. Crusaders captured Constantinople establishing the Latin Empire in the capital but the Byzantine Empire was restored in 1261 and Crusader forces driven out. Meanwhile the Seljuk Turks, l  originally from Central Asia established themselves in Asia Minor (central Turkey) and threatened Constantinople from all sides. The Byzantine Empire shrank and by 1453 the empire was little more than a patch of land beyond the walls of Constantinople and a few far flung Greek islands and outposts. In desperation the last emperors appealed for aid from Western Europe but their pleas fell on deaf ears. On 29th May 1453 the last Roman Emperor Constantine XI through off his Imperial regalia and hurled himself into the advancing Ottoman Turks who had just breached the city walls, his body buried in a mass grave with his troops. The victorious Sultan Mehmed II relocated his capital to Constantinople and almost 2000 years of Rome was at an end.